Escape from Egypt Exodus 1–15

The next three chapters of the text cover the many complexities of the Exodus narrative. In sum, Exodus recounts the period when the Israelites escaped Egypt and began the long return to the land of Israel. Chronologically, Exodus and the remaining three books of the Pentateuch focus on only two generations of Israel’s history. This demonstrates the importance that ancient Israel placed on both the figure of Moses and this period as a whole, as this was the era in which ancient Israel set its standards for religious belief and practice.

The focus of Chapter 6 is Exodus 115, which feature several important themes, including the circumstances for Israel’s bondage in Israel (1.122), Moses’s early life and calling (2.14.17), the ten plagues (7.811.10), Passover (12.128), and the Israelites’ eventual departure from Egypt (12.2915.27).

            Traditionally the authorship of the book of Exodus is attributed to Moses; however, modern critical scholarship argues that the second book of the Bible is a highly complex text constructed out of a number of separate sources. In particular, much of Exodus was derived from the P source, with many other contributions, including J. The end result is a highly compact and rigorously edited narrative. This is especially true of Exodus 115, which feature a variety of smaller units appearing in a variety of forms.

            As was mentioned earlier, much of the narrative centers on the character of Moses. The account of his early life includes a great deal of legendary material, which was intended to show the imminent greatness and heroism of Moses. His legendary birth contains stock themes (including escape from certain death during infancy) that are reminiscent of other heroic figures from antiquity, including Dionysus, Heracles, and Jesus. While these themes are probably not historical and in some ways seem to contradict the overall narrative, they are important since they foreshadow Moses’s future importance as God’s agent on earth.

The Call of Moses

One important block of text is the call of Moses. The weight of the call of Moses is demonstrated by the fact that accounts of this event are preserved in multiple sources. Although the preservation of these accounts resulted in repetitions, including the revelation of God’s name to Moses and the appointment of Aaron as spokesperson, there may be some very good reasons for these duplications. Primarily, since the events described are so significant, the editors may have believed that each source was sacred and therefore needed to be preserved. Despite the repetitions, the P source manages to put its particular stamp on these accounts by both creative editing and the inclusion of themes such as the genealogy and the heightened importance of Aaron as the ancestor of all priests. Most of all, P demonstrates the continuing covenant between God and the people of Israel, while at the same time showing that the revelation of the divine name was possible only through Moses.

The Plagues

The plagues are another complicated block of text that demonstrates the intricate intertwining of the Pentateuchal sources. Identifying them separately is difficult, but attempting to do so illustrates some interesting history behind the plague accounts. In the final form of the text, ten plagues befell Egypt. The accounts of the plagues in Psalms 78.44-51 and 105.28-36 suggest that stories about the plagues were common and that several different versions circulated in Israel. In addition, thematic differences appear, including the eminence of Aaron in the P plagues, while Moses is most prominent in J. Another difference is the “contest narrative” in P between the Egyptian priests and Aaron. Not only does this account show Aaron demonstrating the power of his God, but this section of the narrative also demonstrates that Israel’s God is more powerful than the Egyptian gods. 

            The final plague, the killing of the firstborn of Egypt, is connected to the celebration of Passover. Much of the Passover material is derived from P as it attempts to provide a divine origin for a holy day. Apparently, Passover originated from two distinct springtime festivals, the “festival of unleavened bread” and the sacrifice of the firstborn lambs. These two festivals were combined into one as Israel established itself in Canaan, thereby also joining two separate sections of the population together, the farmers and the shepherds. This combined festival was then historicized as a commemoration of Israel’s being freed from bondage in Egypt.

Events at the Sea

The events at the sea are another example of multiple traditions being sewn together within the overall narrative. Exodus preserves three separate accounts, the most familiar of which belongs to P. The P account preserves the parting of the sea, which resulted in the escape of the Israelites and the destruction of Egypt. In a second account, possibly from J, Yahweh “in the pillar of fire” scared the Egyptians, who fled. The third but probably earliest version suggests that the Egyptians were in boats that were later sunk in a storm. While these three sources are not reconcilable, the final redactor P preserved all three sources as important variations of the same tradition. Furthermore, what may lie at the heart of these traditions is a less grand story that features a small band of escapees under Moses who lost the pursuing Egyptian chariots in the mud of the “Reed Sea.” While this would be a minor inconvenience to the Egyptians, it would appear miraculous to the Israelites.

Exodus and History

As we have found with the Genesis narratives, no direct historical corroboration for the events in Exodus have been found. Exodus is silent on the names of the pharaohs involved in these accounts, and the abundant Egyptian historical records recount no mention of these events or figures. As a result, many have questioned whether the Exodus ever happened. However, despite the dearth of historical evidence and the anachronisms present within the Exodus text, many scholars still think that there is some genuine history preserved in Exodus. In particular, the consistent appearance of Moses as a deliverer of the people from slavery in Egypt in Israel’s literature and legal traditions suggests a common historical source. Also, the prevalence of Egyptian themes, including proper names, makes a historical origin likely.

            If we accept the Exodus as a historical event, then it is necessary to establish some sort of plausible date. Internally, the Bible dates the Exodus to the mid-fifteenth century BCE. However, this date is problematic, as it seems to be based on literary and numerical artistry. Another theory goes back as far as the first-century CE historian Josephus, who suggested that the Exodus coincided with the expulsion of the Semitic Hyksos rulers of Egypt in the mid-sixteenth century BCE. There are also problems with this chronology, including the fact that there is no trace of Israel in Canaan during this period. The most reasonable date is the thirteenth century BCE, both because it fits the historical record most suitably and because Israel is mentioned in the thirteenth-century Egyptian Merneptah stela as a nation in Canaan.

            The Israelites’ escape from Egypt demonstrates P’s often liberal editing at its finest. Instead of artificially harmonizing all accounts into one more uniform narrative, P preserves other versions of stories in an effort to demonstrate the value of these different voices. This is especially apparent in Exodus since the figures and events were of such importance for ancient Egypt. As we have already seen, such weighty material often lends itself to exaggeration and embellishment, such as in the case of Moses’s heroic origins. Perhaps nowhere else are these amplifications of tradition more prominent than in the actual flight from Egypt. Here we find that the Exodus was a migration not of thousands (if not millions) of people but of a few hundred and that it was not a dramatic parting of the sea but an escape through the swamp that saved Israel. Although this may seem like a corrupt representation of events, it is important to remember that the ultimate goal was to demonstrate the singular importance of Moses and his generation to Israel’s identity and to glorify God for his gifts to his people.

The Hegemony of Storm-gods

By the end of the Late Bronze Age, there is a fundamental shift in the pantheon of the gods throughout the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Specifically, a younger god, who is usually identified as a storm-god, supplants an older god. We have already seen this in the case of Marduk, who succeeds Anu in the Enuma Elish. This trend also repeats itself among Greeks, Hittites, and Canaanites, just to name a few. Therefore, it is no surprise that there is also an apparent shift within the Bible. While the sources all state that there is continuity between the God of the ancestors and the God of Exodus, the fact that the deity first reveals himself as Yahweh in both E and P sources in the book of Exodus suggests that something new has happened. This reference indicates that there is an echo of change preserved in Exodus, recalling a time when the ancient Israelites switched their loyalties from the worship of the sky god to the worship of the storm-god.

Implications for Our Study

Although the accounts of the Exodus may not preserve the historical details of this event accurately, it certainly appears that some sort of exodus occurred in Israel’s history. Moreover, within the narrative, the Exodus account stands as the ultimate example of the common theme of exile and return. However, the Exodus is more than just a tale of high adventure or a literary theme. These events had a singular impact on the religious beliefs and practices of the Israelites and have continued to influence religious law, ritual, and the calendar to the present day.

            Also in the book of Exodus, the reader encounters the figure of Moses for the first time. Moses rises to prominence in Exodus 1–15 as the hero and deliverer of the Israelites. As one progresses through the rest of the Pentateuch, Moses develops into the ultimate human authority as God’s agent on earth and his lawgiver. In the chapters that follow, we see this evolution as God presents Israel with many laws, including the Ten Commandments. In these passages one sees how the biblical writers gave added authority to their laws that governed civil and religious issues by connecting such legislation to the revelations at Sinai and to Moses himself.